Fourier's Utopia

The first part of this article is reproduced from Augustus John's 'fragments of autobiography' Chiaroscuro (1952) by kind permission of Messrs. Jonathan Cape; the second part was originally published in Albert McCarthy's anarchist quarterly Delphic Review in 1949.


LET US PAY A VISIT to Charles Fourier's Utopia. Philosophers from Plato downwards have built Utopias. That of the commercial traveller we are going to take a glimpse of is not the least interesting. Here we are in the 'age of harmony'. It supersedes our 'civilisation' even as this has replaced 'barbarism'. The political unit here is the phalanstery. We will visit one of these imaginary institutions, reconstructing it from Fourier's voluminous writings as best we can, but adding a touch or two of our own. Fourier elaborated the constitution and working of his society down to the last detail, but much of this is too complicated and fanciful to be dealt with here. With a fundamental basis of sound sense, there appears in his speculations a note of extravagance. When, for instance, he envisages the harnessing of the Aurora Borealis, with the conversion of its light into heat, rendering thereby the climate of the Arctic regions eminently suitable for market gardening, I for one, feel baffled. Yet since the writing of these Fragments, the newly revealed possibilities of atomic energy have included this very miracle in its programme. Few would agree with his denigration of bread as an article of diet, but Fourier found it unpalatable; besides which, he argued, the cultivation of wheat took up far too much space, time and trouble. He advocated the use in its place of fruit and vegetables with the addition of fish and the products of the chase: but milk would be available and no doubt beef and mutton, though I remember no reference to these commodities in the selected résumé of his works, sympathetically edited by the well-known economist Charles Gide, to which I have had access.

As we approach, the phalanstery shows itself, standing on an eminence like a little hill-town. Surrounded by lesser buildings within the containing wall, the taller reminds me somewhat of the Pope's Palace at Avignon. The Line of the horizon is broken by distant silhouettes of more than one such landmark. We pass a troupe of magnificent children, amusing themselves at their task of scavenging and mending the road. ('Children love dirt'.) These are the petites hordes to quote an example of Fourier's extraordinary nomenclature. By the river which partly encircles the phalanstery, a band of Nomads have pitched their tents. They seem to be making derisory comments on our appearance in an unknown tongue … (Fourier himself mentions no such people). Crossing the bridge, we penetrate the enclosure by a nobly planned gateway, bearing sculpture of arresting and unfamiliar quality. The outer walls appear to serve no military purpose but merely confine the town within the bounds of expansion prescribed by the philosopher. Fourier realized the truth that human greatness flourishes in inverse ratio to the size of the community, and limited his population, at most, to 1,700. A superfluity would set forth to found a new phalanstery. Thus the whole land becomes dotted by these ganglions of social life, between which there will be constant interplay and traffic. Proceeding through the glass-covered, air-conditioned and impeccably clean streets, we arrive at the Central Market Place. Under its tall trees numbers of people are taking the air: many sit before the taverns or under the arcades which alternate between the loftier facades of Church, Operahouse, University, Hall of Exchange, Library, Theatre, Council House and such communal centres of culture. Although it is of recent date with no sign of dilapidation, a mysterious air of antiquity pervades the whole, as if a Mycenean or Huanacan city had come to life again. Raised in the centre, a great stone figure of a woman with head uplifted gazes at the sun, which shines through a hole in her torso. It may be a work by the twentieth-century statuary, Henry Moore. Although the inhabitants show much diversity in costume, which seems to indicate their occupation as much as the exercise of personal taste (the women showing a greater degree of uniformity), we meet with no signs of indigence. Fourier was no leveller, and admitted every degree of function and dignity in his world; but all, it appears, are shareholders in the common stock. The phalanstery, in a literal sense, belongs to all who belong to it.

In Civilisation the family was held to be the basic unit of society; not so in Harmony. It was observed that this institution, instead of welding society together was, on the contrary, a primary cause of its disruption. The interests of the family were seen to supplant those of the community as a whole, giving rise to class cleavage, intrigue, aggression, power-politics and finally war. With all its holy glamour, it tended to become an important accessory of business, with prostitution as its necessary adjunct. Here, the free association of the sexes carries no shadow of disrepute, and the resultant unions, without religious sanction or the constraints of law, are often seen to be remarkably durable, and that, moreover, without the concurrence of the brothel, which is unknown in Harmony. As for the ruling class, there does not appear to be one, for the philosopher, poet, man of science, artist or saint, who rank highest in popular esteem, wield no power at all other than moral or intellectual.

Some individuals, too, of no such high standing, exercise as much authority in private as in the council chamber. A certain shoe-maker, I was told, was constantly resorted to by people in difficulties for his sound judgment and advice. But have not cobblers always been noted for their sagacity? We saw no police or soldiers in evidence and asked our guide, 'What about your frontiers, how are they guarded?' 'Frontiers,' he repeated stupidly, 'Frontiers? But we haven't any.' In this somewhat primitive community money is not regarded as wealth in itself, but is merely used to facilitate exchange. By applying at the bank you can have as much as you like. It is in great request with the children, who use it as counters in a game called 'Business' or 'Beggar my Neighbour'. Anthropologists say this game, like 'Hop-Scotch', is of very ancient origin.

And now we notice a great stir and hubbub. In every direction people are issuing from their workshops and factories and hastening to the gardens and orchards which stretch far beyond the circumference of the phalanstery. It is the hour when work is changed. In many cases a man has two, three or more pursuits which he follows in rotation: by this system monotony and rustiness are avoided. Above all work on the land at regular intervals is found to be especially beneficial. Dancing of a communal and ritual character is much cultivated. Music, ballet and theatre flourish, and in the cathedral the rites of birth, love and death are celebrated with great splendour and solemnity. The Festivals of the Sun, Moon and Planets, with other objects of worship, as types of Ultimate Reality afford occasion for pageantry, song and dance, of a highly spectacular and exhilarating nature. Often at these events a good deal of buffoonery and horse-play is indulged in. I inquired, 'Do you ever have rows, quarrels?' 'Oh yes,' was the reply, 'plenty; but for those who want to fight, there is always the Ring down there,' said my informant pointing to the Stadium by the river.
As we continued our exploration, we came across a small house with a very large window giving on to a garden where was seated a venerable personage in a blouse, engaged in painting a young woman posed under a tree. 'Our oldest inhabitant,' said the guide, tapping his forehead significantly. One of our party remarked that the old gentleman looked like a revised and much improved edition of myself. I thanked him for the compliment and passed on.

Upon taking leave at the gate, the same witty fellow made a final inquiry: 'And how are you represented in the central legislature or governing body of the State; by a delegate, deputy or member from each phalanstery, or from a group of phalansteries?' Our guide was obviously shocked. 'We mind our own business,' he murmured, then pointing to an inscription over the arch, vanished. The inscription, in letters of gold, was to this effect: WHEN THE STATE CEASETH LOOK MY BROTHERS DO YOU NOT SEE THE RAINBOWS AND THE BRIDGES OF THE BEYOND?


Many civilisations no less splendid than our own have passed utterly away under the assaults of conquest and disease. What secret of longevity can we claim, what extenuating circumstances plead, that will immunise us from a like fate, and, sentenced to death as we are, reprieve us at the eleventh hour?
Are not all human societies, like the men and women who compose them, subject to the same law of growth, flowering and decay? In the case of individuals, we are accustomed on perceiving signs of distress to send for the Doctor; for immediate and complete extinction is distasteful to most of us, and even those who cannot conscientiously aspire to immortality, will bank on some degree of perpetuation through the medium of their descendants' progressively diluted blood-stream. But we are now threatened with a catastrophe which will mean the extinction not only of ourselves, but of our children; the annihilation of society itself. Before putting forth the only suggestion I can offer in this predicament, let us take another look round …
Upon examining the banners of the protagonists, we find to our astonishment, that all bear the same device; not Excelsior but Democracy! When the fighting starts, every man provided by his government with a gun, will be told to go forth and murder his opposite number in the cause of Democracy; so that when the carnage is over, Democracy will have won for a certainty, though the Democrats will have been considerably thinned out in the process. Is it worth it?

I doubt myself that, left to themselves, people of different provenance, on meeting, will instinctively leap at each other's throats: on the contrary, the general rule is to show extra politeness to foreigners. Who has not seen various racial elements mingling together in a spirit of perfect good-fellowship? Such assemblages are an excuse for conviviality, not an occasion for strife. But political propaganda is quite capable of proving black to be white, of reviving ancient rancour, of instilling fear and arousing in an innocent but gullible people, the rage and fury which is the prelude to blows. Propaganda in the service of ideology is the now perfected science of lying as a means of power. It was noticed that the most inflammable types of human war-material were not to be found among the intelligentsia, and accordingly, Propaganda for Power, like the New Journalism, addresses itself directly to the ignorant, the immature and the mentally defective – the majority in fact. Have we not achieved universal suffrage and isn't one vote as good as another? A non-voter myself and no great democrat either, I propose to keep out of the mélée. I am quite without military ambition. La Gloire, in modern conditions leaves me stone cold. Strict neutrality however, will prove difficult to maintain. One's erring sympathies may betray themselves, and, oscillating, say, between the magic of Wall Street and the fairy-like lure of the Kremlin, lead to trouble. We will be watched, and as nothing excites suspicion like silence, I have decided that a practice of ceaseless, and inconsequent loquacity should be cultivated, for, if it comes to being put to the question, with or without thumbscrews or other aids to veracity, such a line will be least compromising, and most likely to provide an intellectual alibi.

Though National Sovereign States, are by definition, bound to fall foul of one another; when thus employed, the combatants, by arrangement, may at a given moment, relent, cease fire, and in a burst of brotherly love, embrace and swear eternal friendship. The soldiers naturally welcome such a breathing-space and an emotional orgy follows. The murderous swine of yesterday, by a rapid metamorphosis, become the brave comrades of today. Unfortunately such a decision dictated by expediency alone, may, when necessary, be reversed for the same reasons, and the shooting starts again. The State must not be judged by human standards nor even be personified as representing the quintessence of the soul of the people it manipulates. The State is immoral and accountable to nobody. But what is this 'quintessence''? It consists in the people's needs and in their dreams. They need the means to gain their living; freedom to use their native tongue; to preserve their customs; to practice any form of religion they choose; to honour their ancestors (if any); to conserve and transmit their cultural traditions, and in general to mind their own business without interference. And the Land? But, in this country, the people seem to have forgotten the land of their fore-fathers; the vast Common Lands of England, held by them from time immemorial, and completely enclosed by Act of Parliament, and only in the last century we have lost our Commons but keep the House of Commons, which played this trick and still give our votes to the suppliants who periodically come begging for a seat in the best club in London …

With the mention of hedges I come to my proposal of an alternative to a collective suicide pact. Hedges are miniature frontiers when serving as bulkheads, not wind-screens. Hedges as bulkheads, dividing up the Common Land should come down, for they represent and enclose stolen property. Frontiers are extended hedges, and divide the whole world into compartments as a result of aggression and legalised robbery. They too should disappear. There is nothing sacred about them for they are often shifted, as they have been erected, by force and fraud. They stand for no ethnological distinctions, for all races are inextricably mixed, and, in any case, should not be divided but joined. Frontiers serve no useful purpose for, costly as they are to guard, they have never stopped a conqueror yet, or checked the scramble for Lebensraum. They are absolute militarily though still an incentive to aggression. They give rise to the morbid form of patriotism known as Chauvinism or Jingoism. Frontiers besides are a great hindrance to trade and travel with their customs barriers, tariffs and douanes. We hear a good deal, though not enough talk, about doing away with passports. It would be more to the point to abolish the frontiers they symbolize. People will love their country no less for being free to get out of it now and then, and in the contemplation of other peoples' performances
in the Art of Living, learn to estimate their own with all the more accuracy.

But it may be asked, without frontiers what on earth would become of the State? There would be complete chaos surely. The answer is:- deprived of national frontiers, the State would undoubtedly 'wither away', as prophesied by Messrs. Marx and Lenin, as due to take place upon the imposition of the 'Dictatorship of the Proletariat'. In their case, it must be admitted, the programme does not seem to have gone according to schedule: far from it, in fact; but to our ears, the sacred formula of social salvation used above, never did sound re-assuring. What's a Proletariat anyway! Never heard of it! We know what a Dictator is however … As for 'chaos', we've got that already. The withered State, will, of course, be replaced by a consultative body of scientific experts, issuing, not ukases but recommendations.

With the debunking and levelling of frontiers (though some picturesque bits might be preserved, like Bokerly Dyke and Grimm's Ditch), the whole pattern of society would change. No longer in the form of the Pyramid, it would come to resemble rather the constitution of Amoeba, which alone among living organisms possesses the secret of immortality. The monstrous 'wens' of capital cities and industrial towns would shrink and disappear in favour of a multiplicity of small communities dotted over the country, autonomous, self-supporting, federated and reciprocally free. To preserve these nerve-centres of human activity at a manageable size, growth would proceed, not by accretion but by proliferation. Gigantism is a disease. Where there will be no frontiers to be violated, no fortresses to subdue, no capitals to sack, soldiers will be an anachronism and will be forced by circumstances to make themselves useful. With no armies to support, no taxes, no dollars, and no debts, man will be economically in a sound position; he will be a shareholder in his Commune which will belong to him inasmuch as he belongs to it. Let not the ambitions be discouraged by the modest size of our village commune, phalanstery, or Kibbutz. Genius has been known to flourish in comparative solitude. Classical Athens was hardly bigger than Fordingbridge.

Such disturbances as may from time to time, interrupt the general harmony, will be local, insignificant, and possibly enlivening like a football or boxing match: there will be the Stadium handy. The spiritual revolution which must necessarily precede the inauguration of a world without war, will not at once inflame the imaginations of our up to-date good-timers. The goal, to the hard-boiled, will seem visionary, its attainment uncomfortable. For some people Beatitude itself must prove disappointing. It is to the religious that we should turn, rather than to the devotees of Fashion and the Fun-Fair. The Baptists, for example, should not find our Primitivism repugnant, and their own initiatory rites might well be adopted by the Fundamentalists of the future.

Whatever excitements and amenities we may be called upon to sacrifice, at least no monotony need be feared, under a form of society of which each unit reflects the character and cultural standards of its builders, and where everyone is at liberty to choose his environment and when he likes, change it for another.
What predominant type might we expect to emerge after a generation or two of experiment in such conditions? The answer to this question should decide the issue for "man is the measure" always. We do not look to Nietzsche's Superman perhaps, still less to his despised homme bonasse. Born and bred in peace and freedom and reared in familiarity with the nature he will have learned both to worship and, in part, subdue, he will have inherited from his pioneer progenitors the manners becoming a free man: wise in his simplicity, contemptuous of power, indifferent to office, this, the Common man, will gladly fill the humblest role in the community he elects to serve. His boon companions, artist, philosopher and vagabond, will always be at call, with the women and children not far off, either …

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Jul 15 2016 22:09


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